Whitecaps find plenty to love about Kamara
Whitecaps’ ‘ breath of fresh air’ fought biggest battle coming to North America
This one should be easy to write.
Kei Kamara was 16 when he arrived in the U.S. from his wartorn homeland of Sierra Leone. To that point in his young life, he hadn’t really played organized soccer, but in short order he became a high-school star in the Los Angeles area, a college star at California State University, Dominguez Hills, then an elite striker in MLS, where he’s off to a fast start with the Whitecaps this season.
He’s also charismatic and quotable and talks freely about his history and the forces that shaped him. And he’s involved in several charitable initiatives in Sierra Leone.
I mean, talk about putting it on a tee. A first-year journalism school student should be able to handle this one. Lead with an anecdote. Transition to a quote from Kamara. Segue to coach Carl Robinson’s thoughts about the source of his players’ mental toughness and resiliency, then tie it all together with a poignant ending.
Then why do you stare at the screen, knowing you can’t possibly do service to Kamara’s story, that anything you write off a 10-minute interview will feel trite and inadequate, that this deserves more than 850 words in the Daily Bugle?
Put it this way. Growing up, Kamara’s challenges weren’t making the team or fighting through injuries or coaches who didn’t believe he was good enough. It was escaping the Revolutionary United Front and the life of a child soldier. It was witnessing summary executions and assassinations and wondering if your turn was next. It was fleeing Sierra Leone in his early teens, landing in Gambia, then cashing his winning lottery ticket — a refugee visa to the U.S. because his mother had literally won entrance to the states a decade earlier through a program that no longer exists.
“It’s made me who I am today, the man I am, the player I am,” Kamara said on Tuesday after Whitecaps training. “I owe everything to where I came from.
“We grew up faster than normal kids. We had to be aware of what was around us and where the danger was. When we moved to the states, it was the greatest opportunity ever and I could not let that slip by. I used that to achieve everything you could achieve as a refugee.”
And to think we sometimes take what we have for granted.
Kamara, now a married 33-year-old father of two toddlers, has been the driving force behind the Caps’ fast start to the season with a goal in each of their victories and the primary assist on Brek Shea’s winner in Houston on Saturday. Robinson, a longtime fan, brought in the lanky striker this off-season largely because his goal-scorer’s pedigree outweighed concerns over his age and penchant for drama.
Two games in, Kamara looks like found money for the Whitecaps, but in this, as in all things, stay tuned.
“I’d say 70 or 80 per cent of the people told me to stay away from him because he’s a character,” Robinson said. “But I love characters. I know Kei. I know people who know Kei. Those were the people I talked to. I love him to bits.
He’s been a breath of fresh air since he came here. The coaches love him. The players love him. I think I can prolong his career, but it’s important to manage him correctly.”
Kamara, in fact, has fit seamlessly into the Whitecaps’ locker-room, which is interesting because he arrived from his previous stop in New England with a high-maintenance tag. With the Caps, however, he’s already established himself as a team leader, an indefatigable worker and a mentor for young players like Alphonso Davies, whose own story is similar to Kamara’s.
“Kei’s a loud person,” said team captain Kendall Waston. “He brings a lot of smiles in each of us. At the same time, he works hard. I think he’s the oldest guy here, but he’s always running first in training.”
Waston was asked to describe Kamara as a player.
“He’s going to bring goals,” he said.
“Maybe you don’t see him, but all of a sudden, boom.”
He’s now been going boom for 11 MLS seasons and over that time the young thoroughbred has given way to the wise old head. A couple of months ago, he also took his wife Kristin, daughter Kierin and son Kendrick to Sierra Leone for the first time. Kamara himself has been back many times and in 2012 established the Heart Shaped Hands Foundation (that’s where his goal celebration comes from) to provide educational opportunities for students in his West African homeland.
Kamara was asked about the current political climate in the U.S. Eighteen years ago, he arrived as a refugee from a Muslim-majority country, built a life and now helps others. He might not have been able to build that life in the U.S. today.
“I’ve always been open about this,” he said. “Life is about peace and giving opportunity to people and kids need opportunity. When they’re given opportunity, they can achieve anything. So can we open doors for more kids? That’s my vision.”
And because of everything he’s been through, that vision comes to him with clarity and purpose.
We grew up faster than normal kids. We had to be aware of what was around us and where the danger was.
Kei Kamara has already made his presence known on and off the pitch with the Whitecaps, serving as a mentor to the team’s younger players, while scoring twice and adding an assist in two MLS matches, including Saturday’s 2-1 win over Darwin Ceren and the Dynamo.